Educating and Organizing for a Democratic Society

E. Wayne Ross

[Originally published in Theory and Research in Social Education, 26(3), Summer 1998.]
As a child, you tend to look on the lines drawn as the inevitable nature of things; for a long time, I did.
But along somewhere in boyhood, I came to see that lines once drawn might have been drawn otherwise.
-Haywood Burns
The principle obstacle to achieving democratic education, according to John Dewey, was the powerful alliance of class privilege with philosophies of education that sharply divided mind and body, theory and practice, culture and utility (Westbrook, 1991). In Dewey's day, and still today, prevailing educational practice is the actualization of the philosophy of profoundly antidemocratic thinkers. The distinction between culture and utility, for example, is a dualism Dewey fought hard against in his efforts to transform education. This dualism, which is "imbedded in a social dualism: the distinction between the working class and the leisure class" (Dewey, 1916, p. 341), provided the basis for disparate types of education that emerged in the early twentieth century: one for those who worked with their hands and another for "those who worked with their minds or did not work at all" (Westbrook, p. 173).  

The sharp distinctions between these types of education have been blurred in more recent years by educational rhetoric such as "the best education for all" or "high standards for every student." The fact that educational policymakers are now calling for a "unified" curriculum, with a single set of standards for all students, however, is merely a superficial adaptation of the economic and educational systems Dewey critiqued over 80 years ago. Tidal waves of privatization and globalization, combined with the grotesque gap between rich and poor in the United States-where the average C.E.O is rewarded at a rate 173 times the wage of the average employee-the explosion of temporary, part-time, low-wage work as well as the physical and constitutional assaults on immigrants and poor people and the boldness with which big money controls the lawmaking all illustrate the sickly nature of democracy in contemporary society. Where schools are concerned, those we have now are "even more intensely segregated by class and race through geography, curricula choice, funding, teaching methods, tracking, and standardized examinations" (Gibson, 1998).  

Dewey's concern was with the ideas implied by a democratic society and the application of these ideas to education. "The price that democratic societies will have to pay for their continuing health," Dewey argued, "is the elimination of an oligarchy-the most exclusive and dangerous of all-that attempts to monopolize the benefits of intelligence and the best methods for the profit of a few privileged ones" (1913, p. 127).  

In this context, what does it mean to teach for a democratic society, the traditional goal of social studies education? This past June a group of social studies educators came together in Detroit to examine this question and discuss what we do as teachers and professors in response. Over the course of three days members of the Rouge Forum addressed questions of racism and national chauvinism in schools, colleges, and educational organizations and discussed the development of democratic, anti-racist, internationalist, social studies curricula in K-12 schools as well as colleges of education.  

In one session, over 20 social studies teachers and professors pursued issues that define the challenges of creating and sustaining democracy in schools and society. Topics included: recent school shootings in the USA and the response of the public and the media to violence in primarily White, small-town communities; the sense of hopelessness and oppression that reigns in many urban schools as well as the sucesses in many others; preparing teachers to go out into the community rather than waiting for the community to come to the school; culturally relevant teaching; racism as a system of ideas-linked to power, privilege, superiority, systematic social control and capitalism-to split people apart; and lastly, organizing for action and demanding change. Obviously, teaching for citizenship in a democracy involves much more than fervent study of historical and related social scientific information.  

Throughout the conference participants shared strategies and on-going actions that promote democratic relations. A notable example is The Whole Schooling Consortium-a collaborative grassroots effort that brings school personnel and university faculty together with families to build schools that provide effective and quality education for all students, including students with exceptional educational needs and other diverse learning needs. To my mind, the WSC's combination of democratic school reform with inclusive education initiatives represents a powerful model of democratic social education, one that breaks free of the fetish that democratic dispositions and associations will flow from the mere study of "democratic ideals," or the history of "democratic" institutions.  

Whole Schooling is a contemporary reflection of Dewey's notion that the best way to achieve democracy is to initiate children in a form of social life characteristic of democracy: a community of full participation and "conjoint communicated experience," what he described as the "mode of associated living" (Dewey, 1916). This is not preparation for living in a democracy, it is participation in a democratic community of inquiry, that:  

    Empowers citizens in a democracy (through community studies, inquiry and analysis of social situations, and efforts to improve students lives and create an equitable society);  
    Is all inclusive (all children learning together across culture, ethnicity, language, ability, gender and age);   

    Teaches and adapts for diversity (designing instruction for diverse learners that engages them in active learning in meaningful, real-world activities and that accommodates learners with diverse needs, interests and abilities);  

    Builds community and supports learning (intentionally building support strategies within buildings and classrooms; re-aligning use of resources associated with programs with targeted funding, e.g., special education, Title 1, gifted education);  
    Fosters partnering (builds real collaboration within the school and with families and the community; parent and community governace; engages the school in strengthening the community; service-learning and community problem-solving; integrated service and supports for families and students). (Peterson, Beloin, & Gibson, 1998).  
Whole Schooling illustrates a way in which the we can improve the education and community resources available to children and their families who experience the effects of poverty and lack of resources on a daily basis and combat the alliances that are obstacles to achieving democracy in schools and society. For social education to contribute to a democratic society, it must move beyond teaching platitudes and "truths" that actually sustain the obstacles to achieving democracy and take on efforts in the mold of Whole Schooling.  

Dewey's Democracy and Education opens with a discussion of the way in which all societies use education as a means of social control by which adults consciously shape the dispositions of children. He goes on to argue that "the conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind." Many educators have accepted the "lines as drawn" as the inevitable nature of things and argued any redrawing is "ideological" and to be avoided. "But if one defines 'ideology' as the frame within which people fit their understanding of how the world works, then it is certainly ideological to...assert the primacy of 'small-d-democracy' without venturing into the messy underside of 'American democracy.' And it is certainly ideological to demand 'a seat at the table' without challenging the terms of the conversation at the table. Put another way, a view of one's mission is as ideological for what it leaves out as for what it includes." (Wypijewski, p. 24).  



Dewey, J. (1913). Education from a social perspective, In J. A. Boydston (Ed.) John Dewey: The middle works, 1899-1924, Vol. 7 (pp. 113-127). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.  

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press.  

Gibson, R. (1998). Which side are you on? Toward a real compact of educators, kids, and parents [On-line]. Available:  

Peterson, M., Beloin, & Gibson, R. (1998). Whole Schooling: Education for a democratic society [On-line]. Available:  

Westbrook, R. B. (1991). John Dewey and American democracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.  

Wypijewski, J. (1997). A stirring in the land. The Nation, 265 (7), 17-25. 

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